WASHINGTON -- Saying dejectedly that they have seen it all before, civil rights groups and activists foresee serious new threats to individual liberties from the rising demand among politicians for a crackdown on militant anti-government forces.
As President Clinton widened his public complaint yesterday against those who "spread hate" and official Washington planned to move swiftly on new "counterterrorism" proposals, civil libertarians argued strenuously against going too far.
But the fear being expressed from more liberal groups was also matched by some concern in conservative circles.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, called for new measures against terrorism, but simultaneously said a new congressional committee may have to be set up to monitor how new official powers are used, to prevent abuses. "The purpose of all this is to preserve freedom, not to eliminate it," he said.
That sentiment was widely echoed yesterday. "We have to carefully watch what we're giving up here," warned Kenneth Poole, board chairman of the Montana Human Rights Network, a group based in Helena that keeps track of the activities of "radical right" groups. "There is certainly a danger of being hysterical and moving too quickly."
He and others asserted that a sudden increase in police authority -- eavesdropping, monitoring travel and telephone calls, infiltrating groups, checking their mail -- is not likely to achieve the goal of preventing incidents such as the Oklahoma City bombing.
"We could give up everything and still not stop incidents like Oklahoma City," said Mr. Poole. "We could be a terribly repressive society and still have terrorist activity occur."
Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the nation has witnessed repeated incidents of police crackdowns after "outrageous incidents," and has frequently discovered long after the fact that the responses were a mistake.
"Those [crackdowns] never made us safer," Mr. Glasser contended. "We have always lived to regret it," he said, recalling police raids against anarchists in the 1920s, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the denial of rights to those believed to be Communist or subversive in the 1950s and the attacks on anti-war radicals in the 1960s.
"In virtually all of our history," the ACLU executive said, "government has had an instinct to lower the threshold of criminal evidence needed to investigate or begin a prosecution." Officials then look for some substitute for evidence of crime, turning to political association, or race, or national origin, he said.
Although Mr. Glasser credited President Clinton with trying to draw a distinction between militants who may exercise their constitutional rights -- free speech, for example -- and those who would claim a right to act violently on their beliefs, Mr. Glasser said that the administration's new anti-terrorist proposals may blur that distinction.
In Michigan, where a local militia has become the focus of FBI interest since two men now being held in the Oklahoma City bombing probe were linked to it, Howard Simon, head of the state's ACLU affiliate, said the key issue in new anti-militia or anti-terrorist efforts will be what brings them into play.
"If the trigger [for more surveillance] is going to be advocacy of violence," Mr. Simon said, that will run afoul of Supreme Court decisions protecting most verbal or written advocacy. "If advocacy of violence is the standard, that will be a threat to lots of different political groups in this country," he said.
Roger Pilon, director of the conservative Cato Institute's Center for Constitutional Studies, joined in the calls for caution. "What I fear, in the understandable moment of national mourning and reaction to the tragedy of last week, is that we may move precipitously toward legislation that will later come back to haunt us. We must recognize we cannot live in an entirely risk-free society."
Mr. Pilon added several sharp criticisms of specific details in the anti-terrorism measures already under review in Congress.
As Congress returned from its spring recess, leaders made plans to formally condemn the Oklahoma City bombing and then to begin writing a broad new "counter-terrorism" bill aimed at both international and domestic threats. The Senate will vote today on a condemnation resolution and will open hearings Thursday on the new legislation.
The Clinton administration already has started an effort to discount the fears that new measures will undermine peoples' rights. White House chief of staff Leon Panetta said that there is a need to "balance our freedoms and liberties and the ability to go after and prosecute those that basically want to violate those freedoms and liberties."
The proposals to come from the administration in detail this week, he said, are "right on the mark." They are balanced, he insisted.
At the Justice Department, where some of the specifics are now being drafted, spokesman Carl Stern said that "there are any number of things that could be done that could meet the objections of those who do not believe in untrammeled government power. This is not an administration that is predisposed to trample on civil rights or civil liberties."